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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 28 New Delhi June 29, 2019

Girish Karnad — A Tribute

Saturday 29 June 2019

by Sagari Chhabra

Girish Karnad (1938—2019) playwright, actor, film-director, administrator and public intellectual, passed away recently at a time when he was needed the most. Karnad was an incredibly talented, multi-dimensional artiste; his thought provoking plays broke away from the Western dramatic form. His performance in television serials and films, such as Malgudi Days and Swami, were appreciable, but his role as a public intellectual was incredibly courageous.

The photograph of Karnad during his last days, attached to oxygen tubes, holding a placard, ‘I am an urban Naxal’ remains etched in our memory as a metaphor for today’s India—gasping for breath while demanding its right to pluralism, dissent and freedom of expression.

Karnad’s Taledanda, written in 1990 at the height of the mandir-masjid build up, was set in the 12th century Bhakti Movement and was about the poet, Basavanna, who assembled a congregation of poets, artisans and a community that opposed idol and temple worship. When a brahmin girl marries a low-caste boy, all hell breaks loose—Basavanna is beheaded and the movement ends in bloodshed. Was the playwright Karnad warning us against what could happen to our society if we pursue temple politics to its zenith?

My favourite Karnad play is Nagamandala in which the talking flames tell stories in multiple narratives while a woman wedded to a controlling, arrogant man, makes love to a cobra who assumes the body of her husband at night, while he—the husband—is away. The play is a mesmerising one and Karnad breaks away from Western forms of plot, structure and climax to give us a riveting tale with several narratives, keeping the audience at an edge, while exposing patriarchy.

I often engaged with Karnad but as he was a generation senior, our conversations were formal and always to the point. I was present at the premiere of his memorable short film, Cheluvi, at the Siri Fort auditorium in New Delhi. The film is a beautiful tale of a woman who can transform herself into a flowering tree at will. Her jealous sisters in-law harangue her to turn into a flowering tree, then plunder her fragrant flowers, breaking her limb-branches, rendering her unable to transform back to her human form. Her husband returns from a journey to find that his father has sold the land and as he extolls the wealth he has generated, the last shot is of the tree-woman writhing in pain, forever stunted.

Cheluvi is both an environment parable and a film about the selfishness of women and men. After the screening, I walked towards Karnad and asked him what had inspired him. He was reluctant but during the course of the conversation he revealed that it was based on ‘two folk-tales retold by Ramanujan’.

A.K Ramanujan, the brilliant poet, translator and archivist of folk tales, was based in the University of Chicago and it was there that Karnad, on a Fulbright fellowship, wrote Nagamandala, riveted by Ramanujan’s folk tales.

Ramanjuan had inspired a whole generation of poets and I had read, ‘The Striders’ his ‘Speaking of Shiva’s’ translations. His entire approach to writing, was to write with all that you have—all the languages, body excretions, even swear words. He had liberated those of us who wrote in English but had the sweat and perspiration and pain of India in our veins and wanted to break away from ‘angreziyat’. When I reached the University of Chicago, where my film ‘Now, I will Speak’ was being screened, I was eager to meet Ramanujan and invited him through a student of his to view my film. Ramanujan accepted the offer but unfortunately could not attend as he was ‘unwell’, but Karnad’s ‘role model, hero and mentor’ had left his indelible influence on a poet and filmmaker of another generation!

Karnad was one of the very few writers and filmmakers of contemporary India—most of them either exclusively write or direct—who always spoke out with courage and was never afraid to go against the tide. When V.S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in Literature, many hailed the prize to an ‘Indian writer’, but Karnad spoke out about how Naipaul had mis-characterised history and questioned the politics of giving him an award in spite of his widely quoted remarks against Indian Muslims, especially in the light of what happened in Mumbai after Babri Masjid’s demolition and India’s recent history.

When I met him, I remarked that it took courage to say this at a time when Naipaul had just won the Nobel Prize, but Karnad simply replied, ‘I have been wanting to say this for 20 years.’

I met his warm and brilliant wife Saras (Saraswathy Ganapathy) who was a practising neo-natal paediatrician in a New York hospital when she married Karnad. His niece, Avani, is married my childhood friend, Leo Puri. When I asked Saras if she ever missed practising at the hospital, she said: ‘Yes, I could do anything I wanted there.’ Then she added, ‘But I felt all this is important too’, pointing to her two children, Raghu and Shalmali Radha, who were running about. Raghu Karnad is now an accomplished writer. By all accounts, the Karnad couple raised a beautiful family.

Karnad has left behind a legacy of his plays and a fragrance in the air. His relentless courage, even in the face of death threats after the killing of M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru, reminds us that like Basavanna, a man must remain true to the spirit of freedom.

A writer must be true to his words; Karnad did that, and that is why we call him a man whose name and writing will endure. Farewell, Girish Karnad, India will remember you!


Sagari Chhabra is an award-winning author, poet and film-director. The views conveyed here are personal.

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